Sexual Violence: Newsflash, nothing’s changed

Image credit: Alex Brown

On Sunday, the Guardian posted an article — Student sexual violence: 'leaving each university to deal with it isn't working’  — detailing the findings of a Guardian investigation into sexual assault at 'elite' universities. The investigation revealed a fundamental failure by these so called ‘elite’ universities to provide adequate advice, pastoral support, and legal and academic protection for victims of sexual assault on campus. 

Cue a barrage of Facebook posts, of retweets, and news stories from the student press. Right? 

Not this time. The floods of outrage torrenting down our timelines and the rivers of debate in student papers seem to have run dry. And why? Not because we don’t care; because as long as sexual assault and rape is part of our culture, we can’t ever stop caring. But it’s not news to us, not any more. Rather, it’s become old news. Headlines are meant to be shocking, sensational, statements but I imagine few would be surprised to hear about the shortfalls in our University’s approach to sexual violence. 

It must be said that this, of course, isn’t an issue confined to the topic of sexual assault at university. As individuals, particularly as women and non-binary individuals, it’s difficult to conflate ‘sexual violence’ with the notion of news, because it isn’t new; we live with it each and every day. In the time between deciding to write this article and actually writing it, I took the short five-minute walk to my local park for a run (for those who know me, the running aspect of this anecdote may indeed be news) and was harassed and heckled both on the way there and the way back. I brushed it off, as I always do, and ‘got over it’ — or perhaps I didn’t ‘get over it’, we shouldn’t have to — but the thing is, it wasn’t ‘news’ to me. It has, dare I say it, become a part of my daily life, or my routine.

That’s the biggest problem we face: complacency. We see, and acknowledge how the University’s track record when it comes to sexual violence is far from perfect — rather, it’s appalling — and we, quite often, accept it, because we know it’s bigger than us. We accept how our individual dissatisfaction and outrage can barely make a dent in the side of an inherently complacent patriarchal society. 

I’m not the kind of person who will take abuse laying down, who will accept misogynistic behaviour or hesitate in calling out a problematic indivdual, but none of us can change the world single-handedly and you’d think having the University of Cambridge, arguably one of the most influential academic institutions in the world behind us, might give us some leverage. But often I struggle to see the University as ‘behind us’. 

Throughout my time at Cambridge I have heard about multiple cases of students I know personally being sexually harassed, assaulted and raped on campus, often by fellow students. But regardless of whether the assault has been formally reported or not, the story ends the same in all cases I have witnessed: with the perpetrator avoiding prosecution by the police, discipline by the college and questioning by their peers. The stories in the Guardian article are truly appalling, horrific cases; but devastatingly they’re all too familiar, things I know could, can, and do happen in our own colleges. 

I would like to think that if I were to become a victim of sexual assault, I could have confidence in my College, and in my University, to believe, support and help me — but I would be lying if I truly thought this in all sincerity. In fact, if we were tomorrow to propose a vote of no-confidence in the University’s approach to sexual violence, I could see only one outcome. 

It is only made worse by the fact that we study at a collegiate university which means that ‘official’ approaches to sexual violence across the colleges are plagued with inconsistency and contradictions. In some colleges provision is — for want of a better word —adequate, sexual harassment policies have been recently reviewed, and active and vocal JCRs, like that at Emmanuel, have brought the issue to the forefront of student attention. But at some colleges, little or no clear policy towards sexual violence can leave students feeling vulnerable and helpless. At my own college, it’s only my position on the JCR which has meant that I have actually seen a copy of the College’s (currently under review) Harassment Policy, which is buried in a dusty, untouched corner of our website and, in my opinion, completely glosses over the issue of sexual violence.  

Rather it seems that student activism and journalism are the only mildly formal movements which are taking steps to truly highlight the huge issue Cambridge faces with sexual violence. Time and time again, the offices of the University and it’s colleges seem to fall deathly silent. Or even worse, as mentioned in the Guardian article, only deign to forward on their ‘official’ policy to victims and investigators, under the delusion that these policies are sufficient. Yet, there remain huge issues with the resources currently provided to victims, including the ongoing shortfall of the Student Counselling Service which in multiple cases have offered insensitive, inappropriate and harmful words to those in vulnerable positions. 

Incoming BME Officer for the Women’s Campaign Lola Olufemi commented "Let’s be clear, what you’re saying when you refuse to acknowledge the need for a comprehensive, University-wide sexual harassment policy is that you have little regard for the safety and welfare of those who are most at risk. Self-defining women and non-binary people, who are disproportionally affected, have a right to feel safe whilst studying. This is not going to go away. The continued silence on this issue says something very sinister about this University's priorities and quietly implies that it would be better if victims just disappeared.”

When we become complacent with crimes of sexual violence, we simultaneously become complacent with the suffering of the victims of these crimes. That simply cannot be allowed to happen. We must hold all those who show such complacency, including the University itself, to account. 

It’s unreasonable to think that the University somehow can change the law, change rape culture and solve the issue of sexual violence alone. But it is, reasonable to expect that not only does the University adopt an official, University-wide policy regarding sexual violence, but strives to create a environment in which all its students feel safe, secure and happy to study in, and ultimately to foster an environment where cases of sexual violence are never dismissed as ‘old news’, but are always at the forefront of our concerns. 

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